As secret societies go, the Ordo Templi Orientis scores high marks on the “society” front, but the “secret” aspect is iffy.
After the Golden Dawn and the Freemasons, the OTO is one of the worst kept secrets in modern occultism.
Although it is most famously associated with Aleister Crowley, the OTO had an illustrious history of nearly 10 years before he came along! Oops! Did I say 10 years? I meant 10,000 years.
Carl Kellner, the founder of the OTO, was an initiated Mason from Austria who had a strange encounter with three wise men while attempting to find himself in Asia.
These keepers of the Sacred Whatever supposedly initiated him into a really, really ancient tradition of magick and mysticism, which inspired him to create his own branch of their secret society, the Hermetic Brotherhood of Light.
Later, Kellner hooked up with other Masons, Rosicrucians and Theosophists (whose worldview was generally Gnostic and who believed that all religions were basically the same religion). Kellner began to believe that he could unify the various esoteric traditions of Freemasonry with the mysteries of science and religion. This, of course, would empower him to create wealth, health and world domination. Not a bad gig (if he had pulled it off)!
Kellner created his own sect, an offshoot of Freemasonry called the Ordo Templi Orientis (the Oriental Order of the Templars). Unlike the Masons, the OTO would allow women as members (expanding the potential base as well as making the sex-orgy-rituals more fun, see below). Otherwise, at this stage, the organization was fairly similar to the Masons, and the inner circle of OTO leadership had advanced Masonic degrees as a job requirement.
Kellner’s partner in founding OTO was Theodor Reuss, who had previously tried to create a revival of the Illuminati.
A Rosicrucian, Grand Master Mason and 33rd Degree Scottish Rite Mason himself, Reuss was also a singer and had taken part in the first performance of Parsifal several years earlier. When Kellner died in 1905, Reuss took the OTO from fledgling concept to formal group.
In addition to their membership in Masonry, Reuss and Kellner shared an interest in sex magick, which was a major tenet of OTO practice. Reuss and Kellner translated tantric sex manuals from the Orient and elsewhere and were enthused about its possibilities. They were particularly interested in the properties of sexual fluids in the context of alchemy. The theory (as understood by the uninitiated) generally went that the right combination of male and female juices could be used to create a “Philosopher’s Stone” style magickal object of power, which could be used to create a homonculus, a magickal child.
Or something like that. Reuss toiled away in relative obscurity but with much intrigue and arcane doings involving groups with many weird names and numerical designations, until a certain Aleister Crowley came on the scene in 1910.
On a trip to England, Reuss and Crowley had a meeting of the minds which resulted in Crowley’s accelerated initiation into some of the higher degrees of the OTO. Crowley was, if anything, even more deeply immersed in sex magick than Reuss. He was also a master at convincing people of his credibility, and Reuss bought into the Beast’s mystique.
In 1912, Crowley was named Grand Master of the OTO in Britain and Ireland, tweaked slightly for Crowley’s purposes. The lower degrees of the lodge were called the M:.M:.M:. (funky punctuation is a must for occult orders), and Crowley’s manifesto announcing its launch managed to lay claim to possessing just about every conceivable source of occult knowledge, including (but not limited to) the Knights Templar, the Gnostics, the Illuminati, the Knights of Malta, the Holy Grail, the Rosicrucians, the Masons (all Rites), the Golden Dawn (and all Hermetic traditions). Crowley liked to think big.
It’s hard to have a “secret” organization whose membership includes Crowley, so it’s fortunate that the OTO had always been (relatively) public. The man liked to talk; he published the secrets of the Golden Dawn (of which he had formerly been a member) and distributed them to anyone who could read. “Low profile” was not in his vocabulary. And he had bigger plans than just staging orgies and granting himself self-important titles (although he unabashedly enjoyed those activities as well).
The Inner Circle: Aleister Crowley, Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard — Late 1940s-early ’50s
When Reuss died in 1921, the OTO became Crowley’s playground. For the Great Beast, the society offered an opportunity to evangelize his self-made religion, Thelema, which was a mystical spiritual framework Crowley claimed to have channeled nearly 20 years earlier. OTO was also a potential source of funds, along with just about everything and everyone else in Crowley’s world.
Under Crowley’s somewhat laid-back leadership, OTO crept forward over the course of decades. Crowley spearheaded an expansion into the United States, where the infamous Agape Lodge of the OTO played host to the Antichrist stylings of Jack Parsons. Parsons, of course, was mentor to L. Ron Hubbard, who swiped the OTO’s Thelemic teachings, rewrote them into bad science-fiction and called it Scientology.
In the wake of World War II, as Crowley aged, becoming ill and self-absorbed, the OTO languished. Some branches dropped out entirely in protest of his ascension.
Crowley’s successor, Karl Germer, oversaw the slowest period in what had not exactly been a booming history thus far. From the late 1940s through the 1960s, the OTO proper stopped accepting new members, while internecine warfare among various sects led to further divisions.
When Germer died without naming a successor, bloody conflicts erupted and the organization foundered leaderless for a time until Grady McMurty, a friend of Crowley’s, led a revival in 1969. McMurty launched a recruitment drive and sought new members, establishing bases in Dublin and San Francisco. By this time, the damage had been done and the OTO’s membership has seriously splintered into a host of offshoots, each claiming some sort of apostolic succession from Crowley, who was now the personification of OTO.
McMurty’s successor was elected by what was left of the Order, as per his wishes. The leader, known as the “Caliph” prefers to be known only by his magical nom de guerre Hymenaeus Beta (his secret identity is allegedly “William Breeze,” but this couldn’t be independently confirmed). The organization today boasts a membership of around 3,000 (depending on who you ask). Interested hangers-on and assorted other sects would substantially increase that figure.
The OTO is more like a religion than a cult, and its major rites are closely guarded secrets that can for the most part be found by anyone who has a search engine. The organization’s members, like its icon, Crowley, just can’t keep a secret.
One of the most well-known OTO rituals is the Gnostic Mass, written by Crowley, which is open to the uninitiated. The Gnostic Mass is surprisingly like a Catholic Mass, except with more groping, a better sense of humor and the naked chick sitting on the altar.
The really big secrets hoarded by the OTO leadership have to do with sex magic. Higher level OTO initiates apparently spend rather a lot of time obsessing about penises (as did Crowley himself). According to various exposes of the OTO, the secrets include swallowing sperm as the ultimate form of Holy Communion, although some alleged “secret” texts of the OTO specify that the substance is “analogous” to sperm without actually being sperm, whatever that’s supposed to mean.
Higher level initiates also learn a lot of tantric stuff, which can hardly be considered “secret,” what with the Kama Sutra and more advanced texts available in every bookstore. Top OTO officials also practice Masturbation, heterosexual intercourse and homosexual intercourse for magical effect, once again techniques that aren’t exactly top-secret in occult circles.
One major text, Liber IAO, has actually managed to remain secret, or at least offline. This book, allegedly by Crowley, supposedly delves further into the whole sperm-which-is-not-sperm thing, with all sorts of no-doubt dazzling benefits and magical powers detailed at extraordinary length (as was Crowley’s wont).
One wonders exactly why OTO bothers with the secrecy thing, given the widespread discussion of its secrets and the blatant disregard Crowley himself showed for vows of silence, but it seems to be very important to them, and the OTO has sued to block publication of its most sacred rites and techniques. So if you’re at a dinner party with an OTO member, don’t ask if he or she swallows, or you could be opening yourself up for a world of hurt.